When office workers emptied Seattle and Eastside corporate towers and campuses last year, many left behind a fairly routine setup: assigned desks, conference rooms for big meetings, and an expectation that they show up to the office at least most workdays.
When they return, all of that could be different.
“The days of having your own space and being able to spread out and have all your tchotchkes and pictures at your desk are gone,” said Dena Yamaguchi, associate principal at the Seattle office of the architecture firm CallisonRTKL. “If you’re working from home part of the time, you can’t use up that valuable real estate.”
As a growing number of people in Seattle and around the country get vaccinated against the coronavirus and begin to contemplate a return to family gatherings and hugs with loved ones, a more workaday question emerges: What about the office?
Employers, architects and commercial real estate experts are now contemplating what post-pandemic office work will look like, with ramifications that extend far beyond the average cubicle dweller. Millions of square feet of office space today sit empty, once home to thousands of employees who commuted, spent money at nearby cafes and sustained employers’ demand for pricey downtown office space.
The office isn’t exactly dead: Some of the region’s largest employers, like Amazon and Facebook, are still betting on large office spaces. Microsoft this past week became the first major local employer to announce an optional return to the office, albeit with limits on the number of people allowed in shared spaces at one time.
But millions of square feet of office space across the Seattle area are available for sublease as employers try to offload space they already rented, and surveys show many workers don’t expect to return to the office the way they left it.
About half of white-collar employees want a hybrid setup that allows them to split their time between the office and home, according to one survey of about 2,000 employees by the commercial real estate firm JLL. On average, among all those surveyed, employees said they hope to work remotely 2.4 days a week.
At the same time, remote work can erode much sense of separation between work and home, especially for those living in small spaces, and can lead to work spilling over into nights and weekends. And the ability to work from home also hasn’t prevented hundreds of thousands of people — mostly women — from being pulled out of the workforce by caregiving needs and other factors.
“Home was a refuge and we took a refuge away,” said Josh Khanna, director of real estate services at Expedia Group, whose employees moved from Bellevue to the company’s new Interbay headquarters shortly before the pandemic.
The trade-offs are likely to boost the trend toward hybrid models, with employees still spending some time working from home. Citigroup recently told staffers they will be expected in the office just three days a week, reportedly becoming the first major bank to make that announcement. Ford said 30,000 employees in North America will have a similar option.
In responses to The Seattle Times, local workers said they are especially eager to say goodbye to their commute.
Before pandemic lockdowns, Kate Bysheim was expected to go to the office five days a week. That meant a punishing commute through I-405 traffic to Renton.
Now, Bysheim works from home in Burien, where she can pause throughout the day to check in on her dogs, cat and chickens, or glance out the window at birds grazing at the bird feeder.
“I’m just a total animal freak and that makes me really happy,” said Bysheim, who works in administration at Puget Sound Energy. Even when the office reopens, she hopes to keep working from home.
Ashley Murrell, who works in finance for a company on the Eastside, liked working from home so much she transitioned to a fully remote job for the same employer. Without a drive or bus ride to the office for her early morning start time, “I felt like I got so much time back in my life,” Murrell said.
Others have missed the office.
T-Mobile engineer Matthieu Marescaux returned to the company’s Factoria offices in September, when his daughter started at a preschool on Mercer Island, meaning he had to commute from West Seattle to the Eastside daily.
On most days, Marescaux said, only a handful of people are in the office, where they are required to wear masks except while sitting at their computers.
It’s easier to find spontaneous collaboration in person than over a video call. “I’m happy to see my colleagues,” Marescaux said. “I always learn things from seeing people in the office.”
Nonprofit worker Sully Moreno said she’s typically social and the shift to remote work and early pandemic lockdowns “felt overwhelming” at first. But now, Moreno hopes to work primarily at home, because not commuting has freed up time to get more sleep in the mornings and exercise in the evenings.
“Aside from thinking about whether this time working remotely has worked for employees to get their work done, I would hope employers would also think about how employees think this change has impacted their well-being,” Moreno said.
Phoebe Pogson, who works at a downtown law firm, has a different take. She expects her company will reopen offices in September and offer employees the ability to work from home some days, though details are still to come. Pogson enjoyed no longer commuting from Shoreline to downtown and hopes to still work from home some days.
But isolation has set in. Pogson’s husband died before the pandemic and lockdowns kept her away from friends, especially as new variants of the virus worsen the threat. “The first 6 months, it wasn’t so bad. At the one-year mark, I felt myself starting to crack,” she said.
What will the office look like?
Early in the pandemic, office workers may have imagined going back to a workspace with plexiglass barriers and hand-sanitizing stations.
While hand sanitizer could be here to stay, plexiglass is “not a proven solution,” given what experts now know about how the virus spreads, Yamaguchi said. Instead, the Centers for Disease Control recommends employers boost air filtration and outside airflow, among other measures.
Extra cleaning is likely to remain in place, local employers said. That can come with consequences: Janitors who have cleaned buildings through the pandemic can be at risk of getting the virus.
The most noticeable shift for office workers may be where they log on, as employers allow more remote work.
At the Seattle-based tech company F5, surveys found “a majority of employees want a hybrid approach,” said Ana White, executive vice president and chief people officer. “People have clearly appreciated not having commutes, but some employees are eager to get back in to see each other.”
At REI, corporate employees will be allowed to work up to five days a week from home, the company says.
“People are balancing many, many different personal needs along with their professional roles,” said Chris Putur, REI’s executive vice president of technology and operations.
At Expedia, some of those trends were already in place before the pandemic.
Employees did not have assigned desks but instead could temporarily claim shared desks and clear their belongings by the end of the week. Lockers are available for storage, Khanna said.
The company opted to avoid assigned desks after finding only about 60% of its employees were in the office on a given day at Expedia’s previous headquarters in Bellevue. Expedia, which has about 4,000 employees in Washington, began moving employees to the new Seattle offices in late 2019.
The Interbay campus already had online systems for booking meeting rooms and plans to allow reservations for desks. It was set up with various workspaces “kind of like how you work at home: unplug, go sit on a sofa, go outside,” she said.
When office workers want to return, Expedia will require a safety test, quizzing their understanding of rules like mask requirements and avoiding the office if they have any symptoms of illness. Expedia does not plan to do temperature checks on site, Khanna said. Conference rooms will have fewer chairs to limit the number of people in each meeting.
The move toward remote work can cut down on employers’ need for space — and their costs.
New leases for office space slowed to a crawl across King, Snohomish and Pierce counties last year, according to data from CoStar. In mid-2020, the volume of new office leases, the majority of them for smaller spaces, reached the lowest point in at least three years.
Employers are still trying to hand off space they already rented.
Subleasing availability shot up in late 2020 and early 2021, much of the space in downtown. In late March, nearly 7 million square feet of office space was available for sublease across the metro area, compared to less than half that in the first quarter of last year, according to CoStar.
At home, meanwhile, employees often bear the cost for utilities, internet and other needs.
Research using pre-pandemic data found that the need for more space to work remotely meant households with at least one adult working from home spent more of their income on rent or mortgage payments and property taxes than similar households without a member working remotely. (The working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research used census survey data and is not yet peer-reviewed. It doesn’t account for the potential trend of remote workers moving farther away to cheaper housing markets.)
Before the pandemic, F5 leased all 28 stories of office space in the Fifth Avenue tower that bears its name, roughly 515,500 square feet of space.
Now, the company is subleasing out six floors, about 115,700 square feet, on top of another two floors or 37,500 square feet the company let go before the pandemic. A company spokesperson cited the “natural, albeit accelerated” shift toward more remote work.
REI sold its never-occupied new Bellevue headquarters last year, freeing up about 400,000 square feet of space. It’s unclear exactly how much space the outdoor retailer’s several new satellite offices may take up, but the first location in Issaquah is about 69,000 square feet.
Putur declined to discuss the comparative costs, saying that “was not a factor in the decision.”
In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, developer Liz Dunn is offering business owners a deal that may not have made much sense before the pandemic: Rent an office on a month-to-month lease.
At Chophouse Row — a former auto-row building turned upscale office and coworking space — Dunn said office tenants started declining to renew their leases as the pandemic stretched on, uncertain what the future might hold. She converted the traditional office space to fully furnished offices with short-term leases.
“You could move in tomorrow,” Dunn said. “You don’t have to commit for the long term.”
The building’s largest office tenant pre-pandemic, the 25-person Seattle-based location-sharing software company Glympse, downsized from 10,000 square feet to about a third of that.
With about 15 employees located in Seattle, CFO Jim Mullen said he expects some to continue working remotely.
“We see the quote-unquote ‘office’ becoming a place for collaboration: teams going in periodically to get together, to host small gatherings,” Mullen said.
Ultimately, Expedia’s Khanna said, she expects many employees to trickle back as they decide they want to be in the office.
“I think once you realize there is a safe environment for you to go to that’s cleaned by someone else, that has decent barista-quality coffee and you can see people you haven’t seen for a long time … we’re going to be surprised.”